According to a recent study, fully 100 percent of adults surveyed believe that the type of liquor they consume—gin or tequila, vodka or scotch—can affect how drunk, and what kind of drunk, they become. (Note: survey respondents consisted wholly of people who sat near me at bars over the past year. My thanks to those who participated.) Everyone I queried was adamant that they, or people they knew (notably husbands), felt or acted differently when they chose to drink one spirit over another. Tequila, for whatever reason, bore the bulk of the opprobrium. “Tequila makes me crazy” was a typical answer, which, perhaps coincidentally, is a line in a Kenny Chesney song.
But when I tried chasing down the physiological reasons for this accepted truth, I ran headlong into a wall of facts. Of all the researchers and academics I asked, fully 100 percent said no, this belief was simply wrong: ethanol is ethanol, and whatever spirit you consume, it’s the ethanol that affects you. (I’m talking about hard liquor here. Wine, beer, and spirits may affect drinkers differently, thanks to relative alcoholic strength and the differing rates of absorption by the body. Liqueurs, which contain sugar and various other whatnot, may also affect one differently than straight spirits.)
So, how to bridge the gulf? To start, let’s look at the scientific studies. I turned up one from 1984 in which rats were injected with solutions of either cognac, scotch, tequila, vodka, or straight ethanol, and then observed for variations in motor impairment. The idea was that the test might reveal differences in the ways we’re affected by trace elements in liquor, called congeners. When a spirit comes out of a still, it’s never pure ethanol. Usually 10 or 20 percent consists of other ingredients, including fusel oils and acetaldehyde. The variation in congeners is why rum (which starts as sugar) doesn’t taste like whiskey (which starts as grain). But with the inebriated rats, no differences were observed in behavior or rectal temperature. (Don’t ask.) Of course, it’s hard to discern whether a rat given cognac was more melancholy than a rat who was given vodka.
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